By Leslie Crawford
I admit it, I’m holier-than-thou when it comes to what I feed my six-year-old son, Sam. Organic everything, filtered water, wheat not white. In fact, I’d assumed that my record as a well-informed, health-conscious mother was just about impeccable. But then a chance conversation with my sister-in-law sent me into a tailspin.
“Knowing what I know now,” said my sister-in-law Jeri Metz, an environmental scientist and organic farmer in Cabin John, Maryland, “I would never feed my family anything that’s been sold, served, or stored in plastic.” The concern, explained Jeri, is that many of the chemicals used to make and treat the plastic we wrap and bottle our food in may be carcinogenic, hormone-altering, and, at the very least, a cause of allergic reactions ranging from skin irritation to breathing problems. What’s more, a growing body of studies shows that many of these same toxic chemicals are migrating directing into our food.
Yikes. I thought I had enough on my plate, what with fretting over pesticides, non-stick pans, and antibacterial soaps. Now I have to add plastic to the list of worries? As credentialed as Jeri is–she’s a university science professor who is diligent about keeping up-to-date on environmental and health research–I didn’t want to believe her. I need plastic. I use it every day. My son needs it. “You mean, even the sippy cups for Sam’s soy milk?” I asked. “The baggies I use for his organic pita-bread sandwiches–those, too?”
Indeed, she replied. In short, even the most conscientious, naturally minded consumer may be ingesting a host of chemicals that pose enough of a risk to merit notice–and in some cases, intense scrutiny–by activist groups like Health Care Without Harm and Greenpeace, as well as government agencies such as the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). No long-term studies have yet been conducted on humans, Jeri added, but the bottom line is that we can’t be sure what the chemicals in plastics are doing to us and to our children.
I was bewildered: How could something with such potential for harm be permitted to come in such close contact with the food we eat? And if there is a danger, how can you minimize your risks without driving yourself crazy looking for alternatives?
I ran a mental slide show of the chemical feast of plastics my son may have been ingesting from the womb onward. For starters, there is the sea of plastic chemicals I’ve been surrounded by in my lifetime and passed on to him during my pregnancy, then years’ worth of breast milk stored and heated in plastic bags during his infancy. Then all those plastic baby bottles and sippy cups. The famous line in The Graduate foretold the role plastic would play in our economy: Indeed, since 1976, it’s become the most widely used packaging material in the United States.
Before surrendering to outright panic, I decided to dig up some of the research my sister-in-law was talking about. First on the list of potential troublemakers was an extended family of chemicals known as plasticizers, used to soften normally hard plastic known as PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. In dozens of animal studies conducted over the past several years, a spate of these plasticizers has been shown to be especially harmful to pregnant mice and their babies.
Studies have linked exposure to even low doses of one of these plasticizers, bisphenol-A (BPA), to chromosomal abnormalities. Exposure to the chemical, which creates hormonal imbalances, resulted in everything from high rates of spontaneous abortions to decreased sperm counts in male mice and early onset of puberty in females. While you can’t make a simple leap from mice to men, researchers like Frederick S. vom Saal, a professor of biology at the University of Missouri in Columbia and coauthor of several of these studies, believe the research raises disturbing questions. “It’s worth asking how concerned you should be about the potential for harm in humans from a chemical that can do all these things to mice,” he says.
The big, lingering question is how easily these chemicals can leach into food. I asked Ned Groth, a senior scientist for Consumers Union, in Yonkers, New York, what he knew about this. “Nobody has complete data yet” he says, though studies have indicated that under certain circumstances–exposure to high heat, harsh soaps, or simply repeated use over time–chemicals from some plastics degrade and do in fact make it into our food.
But the FDA’s George Pauli isn’t alarmed. “Plasticizers can leach into food more than any other chemical,” admits Pauli, who is associate director for science and policy in the FDA’s office of food additives and safety. “But there’s a robust number of animal studies, with a wide margin of safety, which show no effects.” It’s worth noting, however, that all the studies he cites are those put out by the plastics industry.
So what about the independent studies that suggest otherwise? “Many of these studies are relatively small,” says Pauli, “and reported in ways that are hard to interpret. At this stage, we have not seen anything to change our original decision made 40 years ago that BPA is safe.”
At least researchers on both sides of the plastics fence appear to agree on one point: Even when chemicals do leach into food, it’s not clear to what extent humans are affected by them. For me, though, the data from animal studies is worrisome enough that I’ve decided to purge plastic from my kitchen; I’m not willing to wait years for scientists to sort it all out. And even if it turns out that plastic poses no specific risk to my family, I can be comforted by the knowledge that reducing our consumption of it is good for the environment. Not only do millions of pounds of plastic find their way into landfills every year, 14 percent of air pollution nationwide is from plastic production.
Yet when it came to the point of actually doing something about it, I found the prospect of clearing out my drawers of handy plastic bowls and bins almost painful. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, how was I going to live without them? Feeling both martyr and saint, I began tentatively at first, then picked up speed. Soon all my food was stored in old-fashioned glass and ceramic jars and bowls. Once I’d made the switch, I was surprised by how easy the conversion could be.
But while it’s one thing to rid the home front of this stuff, it’s an entirely different challenge to avoid buying it in the first place. You try shopping for food that isn’t encased in plastic. After a few weeks of fits and starts–during one grocery trip, I found myself inexplicably squeezing a fat cube of tofu into a thin olive jar–I’ve got it down to something workable, if not perfect.
I’m lucky enough to live near a health-food co-op where I get a majority of my staples in bulk. So now when I shop, I come loaded with a cache of small paper bags and glass jars. And for foods that come in plastic, like deli foods and cheese, I try to transfer as much as possible to nonplastic containers and wrap when I get it home. For Sam’s lunch, I put most of the food in waxed-paper bags. With messier fare like yogurt, fruit salad, and drinks, I use a metal thermos.
Have I managed to eliminate all plastics that come in contact with our food? Hardly. Plastic is an unavoidable part of shopping in America. But I have realized that what I thought of as convenience was, in fact, simply habit. It’s getting easier by the day to break my seeming reliance on plastic. As for my holier-than-thou attitude? All I can say is that, chastened, I’m praying that one day my lack of faith in plastic proves me wrong. But until we know for certain one way or the other, I’ll happily take paper, thank you very much.
Deplasticizing Your Food
Chemicals are most likely to migrate from plastic into food when exposed to high heat, harsh soaps, and fat. These precautionary measures can help you play it safe.
AVOID MICROWAVING IN PLASTIC.
Heat speeds the release of chemicals into food. “People are being sold microwave-safe plastic, when in fact we’re not being told what’s in there and the rate at which these chemicals leach out,” says researcher Frederick vom Saal. Avoid this uncertainty by using ceramic or glass instead.
EXPLORE THE ALTERNATIVES.
“I have one word for you: glass,” says Terry Hassold, a professor of genetics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who has studied the health effects of bisphenol-A (BPA) on mice. You can also store your food in ceramic containers, waxed- and brown paper bags, and metal canisters made for hot and cold food.
USE PAPER–NOT CLING-WRAP.
Many studies indicate that most of the cling wrap used by delis and grocery stores contains high levels of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plasticizing chemical that has been linked to hormonal abnormalities in mice. (Happily, the cling wraps made for home use are safer.) Ask the butcher to wrap meat and fish in paper. And transfer fatty deli foods out of plastic wrap and into waxed paper when you get home. “If you put cling wrap that’s been plasticized on fatty foods, that stuff will migrate,” says Consumer Union’s Ned Groth. You might also want to cut off cheese’s outer layer–which has been directly exposed to plastic–before rewrapping it in something safer.
WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT.
Discoloration, cracks, or other signs of wear suggest your plastic containers are degrading and may be leaching chemicals into your food. Once you’ve purged your kitchen of old plastic food bins and cups, splurge on a replacement set made of glass.
LIMIT YOUR EXPOSURE.
The longer food sits in plastic, the greater its time of exposure to chemicals that could migrate into it. If you must buy food in plastic–and it’s hard not to transfer it into a more food-friendly container once you get home.
WASH PLASTIC BY HAND.
“It only takes 20 washings in the dishwasher for BPA to start leaching,” says vom Saal. Along with high heat, harsh detergents break down plastic as well. Wash your plastic containers, even those labeled “dishwasher safe,” by hand in warm water and mild detergent.
READ THE LABEL.
While you’ll never find an actual list of ingredients, many plastics come with labels of sorts: those triangles with numbers inside found on the bottom of plastic containers. The numbers you most want to avoid are 3, 6, and 7. The safest numbers are 1, 2, and 5–the type of plastics used in most small water bottles and all soda bottles, yogurt containers, tubs of butter, and so on. At the very least, look for brands billing themselves as “PVC-free.”
BUY GLASS BOTTLES.
Some of the clear plastics, like baby bottles, are treated with bisphenol-A, to which infants are particularly vulnerable. “Using these bottles is like putting a serious drug into what the baby’s drinking,” says vom Saal. Look for glass baby bottles by Evenflo. And avoid drinking water from those five-gallon water jugs delivered to offices and homes, which also contain BPA. Opt instead for filtered water from the tap.
BUY IN BULK.
Health food stores are selling everything from pasta to tofu in bulk, and the plastic used to bag bulk products isn’t known to be toxic, says Groth. To play it really safe, you can transfer your bagged items to glass containers at home.
Plastic by the Numbers
Many plastics are classified by one of seven codes located in that familiar triangle on the bottom of containers and bottles. (The triangle doesn’t mean a plastic container is recyclable; the number inside it simply indicates the kind of resin used.) With plastic wraps and bags, it’s harder to know which chemicals have been used. At the very least, look for brands that advertise on their packaging that they don’t contain PVC. Until consumers demand better labeling on plastic products, you’ll never know exactly what you’re getting in your bottles, bins, and bags, but here are a few suspects to try to steer clear of.
#3 Vinyl or PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
Where it lurks: Most commercial cling wrap used in grocery stores and delis; bottles used to store many brands of olive and cooking oils; some water bottles.
Risks: Contains plasticizers that are suspected endocrine disrupters and carcinogens.
#6 PS (polystyrene)
Where it lurks: Some disposable plastic cups and bowls; most opaque plastic cutlery.
Risks: Contains p-nonylphenol and styrene, both of which are carcinogens and suspected hormone disrupters.
#7 “Other” (Usually polycarbonate, or PC)
Where it lurks: Most clear plastic baby bottles, five-gallon water jugs; clear plastic sippy cups; some clear plastic cutlery.
Risks: “Other” is a catchall category, meaning you don’t know what you’re getting. Most worrisome, many plastics labeled “7″ contain bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disrupter.
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